Non-instrumental Uses

The Non-instrumental Use of ICT as a Component of General ICT Skill Acquisition Study, part of our series of in-depth studies, will explore the benefits library and telecenter users gain from playing computer games, sending email, and chatting. These types of uses — known as “non-instrumental” — are often ignored in studies on public access to ICT. But we suspect that they can help people develop the comfort, skills, and expertise they need to improve their social and economic situations, particularly in the areas of employment and education.

The study asks:

  • Do people gain any ICT skills (i.e., keyboarding skills, knowledge of operating systems and file structures, etc.) through non-instrumental uses of ICTs?
  • Are any skills gained through non-instrumental uses transferable to other (instrumental) uses of ICTs (i.e., searching strategies, information evaluation, synthesis and summary)?
  • How do the characteristics and consumption patterns of non-instrumental use differ between public and private access points?
  • How do user’s understandings of and attitudes towards ICTs differ between public access sites where the emphasis is on consumption of information versus the creation of content and multimedia?
  • How do the characteristics of users affect skill level and activity choice in public access sites?

It’s important to look at public access venues (such as libraries and telecentres) because they are different from private access points (such as home computers). Many public spaces explicitly create collaborative or learning environments as part of their social mission — but in doing so they may also prohibit or discourage non-instrumental use.

This two-year study (2009–2011), led by Beth Kolko, includes fieldwork in Chile and Brazil. Fieldwork will consist of venue and user observations, user and operator interviews, computer skills assessments for users, and a case study on creating content and multimedia at a telecenter in Brazil. Our hypotheses:

  1. Novice and experienced users engage in a mix of instrumental and non-instrumental uses of ICT.
  2. Because of the surveillance aspects of public use, as well as policies that are in place at certain centers that may encourage or discourage non-instrumental use, the type of non-instrumental uses may differ (with regard to frequency, volume, visibility) in public versus private spaces.
  3. Engaging in communication and entertainment activities results in users gaining computer skills, cognitive abilities, content knowledge, and other potential skills.
  4. The computer skills gained through non instrumental uses transfer to instrumental uses of ICTs.
  5. Public engagement with ICTs for non instrumental uses leverage collaborative shared space, and thus emphasizes specific kind of skills — skills that transfer to other areas of life, including those domains mentioned in the Global Impact Study.
  6. Having an opportunity to create multimedia gives people different skill sets than just consuming media, and it also gives them a different sense of themselves as agents and participants in a knowledge and technological society.
  7. Some demographic characteristics may affect skill acquisition.

People are more likely to use computers in telecenters, libraries, and cybercafés for social and entertainment purposes than for anything else. (See our Literature Review.) If such non-instrumental uses promote general ICT skill acquisition, the fact that traditional instruments or measurements do not investigate these non-instrumental usage patterns may have hindered our understanding of how people acquire ICT skills that then have impact on their lives.


Research proposal

Final research report

Two-page research summary